Why the Tories will win the prison expansion political battle

NationalPost.com – FullComment/Canada
January 12, 2011.   Matt Gurney

The federal Conservatives’ plan to spend $150-million over the next several years adding to prison facilities across the country, part of a larger $2-billion expansion to Canada’s penitentiaries, favours incarceration over rehabilitation, and might turn dumb kids into hardened criminals. Our crime rate is trending down. It’s the politics of fear, say the opposition parties. It’s political pandering to the Tories tough-on-crime base, they say. It plays into the “mean-spirited” narrative the Conservatives have worked to avoid with generous grants and blue sweaters. Even once the prisons are built, the annual cost of housing the prisoners and staffing the facilitities will add millions of dollars in costs while providing little, if any, societal benefits, say the critics.

Every one of those charges might be true. But the Tories will win this battle, anyway. So long as our criminal justice system keeps giving average voters a reason to want to see the system “fixed,” the party promising to do that will get the votes.

The examples are numerous and depressing. Flipping through the headlines reveals a disconnect between what seems like justice and the sentences actually being meted out:

  • The Mayerthorpe incident is back in the news thanks to a long-awaited inquiry. James Roszko, a man with a long history of violent and sexual offences, instead of being in prison, was on his farm, where he was stockpiling weapons and running a grow-op. When police moved onto his property, Roszko ambushed them with an illegal weapon, killing four RCMP officers. Why was so clearly deranged a man, a known cop-hater, out on the streets?
  • A Toronto-area man who shot his wife, step-daughter and four-year-old daughter in the head at point-blank range before burning their bodies has been sentenced to life … but can apply for parole in 22 years. Shouldn’t life mean life?
  • A Toronto-man who assisted in a gang-related armed robbery was given a six-year sentence … and then was immediately credited almost four years worth of time waiting for the trial and verdict. So for the crime of stalking two people, cornering them in a parking lot, threatening to shoot them with a loaded handgun and stealing cash and their cellphones, the sentence will be a little over two years.

Canadians are fair people, willing to give a prisoner a chance. But that fairness must apply both ways — not just for criminals, but also to their victims, and society. Rehabilitation is great, redemption is dandy, but when Canadians get the sense that criminals are getting off lightly, and that that problem can be made to go away by spending a mere few billion dollars, they will vote for that. People are tired of hearing about the murder suspect who was out on bail, the drunk driver who killed a woman after a dozen prior convictions or the sex criminal released back into the community after being pardoned. Building more prisons and filling them up might not be the best policy possible, but it’s good politics.

The Tories have a winner on their hands, and they know it. Rather than wasting effort attacking them for it, the opposition should instead ask themselves what it is about our justice system that led people to decide that thugs had more rights than citizens. Only when they come up with their own solution, one that recognizes the yearning of Canadians for true justice and security, will they have a vote-getter on their hands.

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